Humanitarian Aid v. National Interests: The Current Dilemma in Pakistan

By Jacqueline Burns
October 20, 2010

The Crisis

By numbers alone, this year’s summer floods in Pakistan have created the largest humanitarian disaster since the founding of the United Nations in 1947. Floodwaters engulfed over twenty percent of the country, ravaging as much as seventeen million acres of farmland (Basu 2010). Over twenty million people were affected by the flood: 1.9 million houses were damaged or destroyed, at least 1,800 people were killed directly, and 16 million people continue to be in dire need of humanitarian assistance (USAID Oct 15, 2010). While there already existed a large network of humanitarian actors in Pakistan before the devastating rains began, activity has increased exponentially in an attempt to meet the urgent needs of the twenty million Pakistanis who have been thrown into life threatening conditions.

This story, however, is not one of mere humanitarianism; it is unfortunately also one of competing security concerns and political interests.

Since 2009 at least sixty-five aid workers in Pakistan have become victims of violent attacks by militant groups, typically the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Thirty-one have been killed, twenty-five wounded and nine abducted (The Aid Worker Security Database). As more workers are recruited to help in the current relief efforts, the Taliban has been stepping up their rhetoric, threatening to attack aid workers as agents of the West.

Politically, it is no secret that Pakistan holds significant strategic interest to U.S. operations in neighboring Afghanistan as well as U.S. efforts to defuse extremist sentiments and bring stability to the region. The U.S. has pledged $7.5 billion in assistance to Pakistan over the next five years and has been by far the largest and swiftest donor in the most recent crisis, with over $360 million already dedicated by October 2010 (USAID Oct 15, 2010).

Where Political and Humanitarian Objectives Collide

In recent weeks, this intersection of humanitarian, security, and political concerns has resulted in rising tensions between the U.S. government and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) over the issue of something called “branding.” Branding is the official term for the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) legal requirement to ensure that all foreign aid being funded by the U.S. government is visibly labeled with the USAID logo and the words “from the American people” in local languages, regardless of who is actually delivering the aid. While this may sound benign on the surface, most individuals with “boots on the ground” in humanitarian emergencies are employees of international or non-governmental organizations, rather than agents of the U.S.. Many of these IGOs and NGOs claim that the branding requirement makes them indistinguishable from agents of the United States, putting their already vulnerable workers in even greater danger in regions where the U.S. is looked upon unfavorably, or with downright hostility, such as in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan.

From the perspective of the U.S. government, humanitarian aid is a method to win over the hearts and minds of the Pakistani people – something the United States has been desperately trying to accomplish. Despite increasing levels of assistance, most Pakistanis hear more about the casualties of U.S. drone strikes than they do about U.S. humanitarian aid. According to recent Pew Research Center surveys, fifty percent of Pakistanis believe that the U.S. gives little to no assistance to Pakistan. With only seventeen percent of Pakistanis having a favorable opinion of the United States, and sixty-eight percent having a completely unfavorable opinion, officials would like to see greater publicity for the $1.3 billion in U.S. funds given as civilian aid to Pakistan in 2010 (“More Aid, Little Affection” 2010). Past experiences show that the most effective way to gain the approval of a local population is to show them the substantial impact of U.S. assistance—things they can see and touch, such as seed, food aid or medicines delivered directly to those in need. Without a visible USAID logo on these goods, Pakistanis typically do not know or do not believe that the aid is coming from the U.S. government (“V.P. Biden Pledges To ‘Sustain Long-Term’ Aid For Pakistan” 2010). In recent months, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, as well as Secretary of State Clinton, have expressed frustration at the lack of attention given to U.S. relief efforts in Pakistan and have specifically pressured NGOs to more strictly follow the branding guidelines.

NGOs, on the other hand, are concerned about the security of their workers and cite USAID’s ability to grant waivers to the branding requirement in situations where security is a concern – such as regions of Pakistan where aid workers are regularly threatened, attacked and abducted. The security situation is dire enough in Pakistan that many NGOs do not even display their own logo on goods, convoys or buildings, much less advertize their affiliation with western nations (Lawson 2010). Especially with recent Taliban threats against international humanitarian operations, branding may limit or altogether prevent the ability of NGOs receiving U.S. funding from operating in locations where the Taliban and other extremists are active. This can be incredibly problematic from a humanitarian standpoint. Not only were some of the Taliban strongholds the hardest hit by the floods, but they also tend to have less sophisticated infrastructures and thus are even less able to cope with the effects of the crisis on their own.

In response to what NGOs claim has been increased pressure to ensure compliance with branding policies, eleven major aid organizations banded together in early October to draft a letter to the U.S. government asking for relief from the branding requirements in flood affected areas. The letter suggested that instead of branding, a public relations campaign be carried out that would separately provide literature and information to the Pakistani people detailing U.S. activities to help in the recent crisis, as well as in overall assistance (Georgy 2010). On October 12, 2010, prompted by the letter and the recent controversy, acting Director of USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), Mark Ward, responded in a blog saying that “where the security risks warrant it, we will continue to grant waivers to the branding requirement for certain areas and limited periods of time…in Pakistan today, I have granted waivers for NGOs working in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. But Pakistan is a vast country and not a monolith. In other parts of the country ravaged by the floods, where security has not been an issue, we continue to require branding on our aid” (Ward 2010).

No Consensus in Sight

The debate is far from over. Relief groups continue to desire more autonomy to decide where the safety of their workers should take precedence over the political objectives of donating countries, while the U.S. continues to press for greater “transparency” in their assistance to Pakistan and similarly conflicted nations. This issue, which may initially seem like a mundane policy directive, has very real and perhaps dire implications for thousands of aid workers and millions of suffering Pakistanis. This debate should also prompt policy makers to consider the larger normative questions of how interconnected humanitarian and political objectives can and should be.

As much as many would like to, it is perhaps naïve to believe that humanitarian assistance could always be provided out of altruism and not carry any other underlying motivations or concerns of national interest. Furthermore, by accepting and utilizing such national interests, those with humanitarian objectives can often achieve greater success for their goals. Most major humanitarian NGOs take a pragmatic view and accept this compromise as the price of doing business and the most efficient way to carry out their missions to help as many in need in as many places as possible. The downside of this strategy, however, is that political motivations often affect the means and methods for conducting humanitarian operations – as seen clearly in the current dilemma in Pakistan.

If policy is to be conducted in such a grey area, where political and humanitarian motives are allowed to intermingle, there will inevitably be conflict between the two. So the question then remains: where does one draw the line? When do political objectives hurt the humanitarian imperative? When do national interests begin to overshadow human suffering, and is this a price we are willing to pay? Unless a framework is developed to address the difficult questions of when and how these sometimes divergent motives should be balanced, life-and-death decisions for thousands will continue to be decided at the whim of inconsistent, and sometimes arbitrary, policies.

The Aid Worker Security Database, accessed October 17, 2010.
Basu, Moni. “Aid Falling Short in Flood-Devastated Pakistan.” CNN, September 20, 2010.
Crilly, Rob. “Pakistan Aid Workers in Row with US over Stars and Stripes ‘Logo.’” The Daily Telegraph, October 11, 2010.
Crill, Rob. “Taliban Threat to Flood Aid Teams.” The Daily Telegraph, August 27, 2010
Georgy, Michael. “Aid Groups Concerned Over U.S. Branding in Pakistan.” Reuters, October 12, 2010.
Ignatius, David. “In Flood-Ravaged Pakistan, No Sign of American Aid.” The Washington Post, September 29, 2010.
Ignatius, David. “Why Doesn’t the U.S. Take Credit for Aiding Pakistan?” The Washington Post, October 4, 2010
Lawson, Alastair. “US ‘Should Delete its Logos” on Aid to Pakistan.” BBC News, October 12, 2010.
“More Aid, Little Affection.” The Washington Post, August 24, 2010.
“Pakistan – Floods: Fact Sheet #2, Fiscal Year (FY) 2011.” USAID, October 15, 2010.
“V.P. Biden Pledges To ‘Sustain Long-Term’ Aid For Pakistan; U.S. Concerned About Aid Branding.” Medical News Today, September 28, 2010.
Ward, Mark. “USAID Assistance in Pakistan.” USAID, October 9, 2010.
Witte, Griff. “Billions of Aid Dollars Buy U.S. Little Goodwill in Pakistan.” The Washington Post, August 24, 2010.
Worthington, Samuel A. “Why American Aid Workers in Pakistan Need to Keep a
Low Profile.” The Washington Post, October 10, 2010.


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